November 29, 2014

When I was about 13, my brother Gavin was sent home with lice. I was repulsed that insects were crawling through his hair. At that age, I couldn’t distinguish the difference between head lice and Ebola so I demanded my mother place him in instant quarantine. I screamed blue murder if he came within 10 feet of me.

I’ve matured a lot since then and I handled our latest family medical hiccup with grace and calm. For about three weeks around the end of October, Megan scratched her head every now and again. I noticed a rash at the back of her neck and thought it was just eczema. I should have realised she had lice but she hates me brushing or styling her hair. These days I choose my battles so I left it wild and unkempt and it looked as if she’d been electrocuted. This meant I was unaware of all the action going on in the tangle.

One day, I noticed a dark little scab on her scalp. I looked closer. The ‘scab’ wiggled around and then took off, running away from me through her hair. It was the first time I have ever seen a louse and my first impression was that it was cuter than I expected – less like the vile cockroach I imagined and more like an ant or a ladybird without the attractive shell.

imagesLice can’t jump like fleas or swim like fish so they pass from head to head through direct contact with the scalp. As soon as I saw Megan’s lice, I knew we must surely all have it. Alastair shaved his head so that was the end of it for him and Jessica has no hair so she was fine too. It was only Megan and I that required a once off treatment with a sticky silicone, insecticide-free shampoo that zaps the nits and lice in one go.

I noticed the lice on a Saturday evening so we headed to the emergency chemist where I shyly and apologetically explained my predicament. The pharmacist was blasé and said that every Tom, Dick and Harry have lice at the moment. She said that as soon as school starts up after the holidays, there is a tidal wave of customers requiring treatment. In fact, I read on the internet that one in three people has lice once a year. Did you know that? I didn’t. It means you have probably had lice a few times without realising it. I bet I had it often when I lived in London and leaned my head back against the seat on the train or tube.

untitledThe thing that surprised me the most was that I had lice and didn’t even know it. I thought that lice would be more obvious because your hair would itch like crazy. I felt nothing other than the usual mild discomfort that signals it’s time for a wash. It is also a challenge to identify the tiny nits (eggs) because they look a lot like dandruff. The difference is that if you flick at it, dandruff moves whereas the nit sticks hard and fast to a strand of hair.

When I discovered we had lice, I had a crisis of conscience because I wasn’t sure what my responsibility was to those I had been in contact with for the previous three weeks. Was it polite to tell them? WWJD?  The leaflet in the shampoo box said I should. I decided I shouldn’t.

Lice has a stigma, let’s face it. It is one of those misunderstood conditions that you don’t want to announce from the rooftops, a bit like a sexually transmitted disease or mental illness. If someone asked me how my weekend was and I said, ‘Well I spent Sunday fine combing my hair and boiling the linen because we had lice’, I bet you they would take two quick steps backwards and then not invite me round for playdates for the next couple of weeks. I didn’t want people to treat us like we had cooties, even if we genuinely did have cooties.

Apparently after one dose of the shampoo, you are lice-free and can continue normal activities. You then have to fine comb your hair every time you wash it and reapply the shampoo as a precaution a week later. I decided to keep our drama hush-hush and adopt a lower profile for the following few days. I kept feeling as if I was carrying around a naughty secret. Sometimes it was like I had a superpower. One day I was at the supermarket and a woman in front of me was all stroppy with the cashier. I wanted to tap her on the shoulder and say, ‘Lady listen up. Don’t mess with me. I HAVE LICE.’

images1I read on the internet that lice are a pain to get rid of. Not only do you have to destroy the ones in your hair but you have to purge their traces from all linen, stuffed toys, car seat covers, hairbrushes, couches … etc … etc. Other than placing a fumigation tent over the house, it was impossible for me to clean every item that any of us could have possibly contaminated. You can never be sure you have covered all your bases because it only takes one undiscovered nit to get the whole cycle going again. Anyone with OCD would combust from the stress of it all.

The pharmacist sold me a spray for the environment. She said I should spray pillows, seats and any item that cannot be boiled in the washing machine. When I got home I read the fine print on the bottle and saw it contains a mild insecticide. People spray this stuff on their pillows and then breathe it in while they sleep. Are you kidding me? Insecticide? Forget it! I would rather have lice, thank you very much.

Fortunately I read on the NHS and Swiss government medical sites that one should forget about the environment and focus on the head first. Good thing I followed this advice and only washed the linen because three days later I found a few more nits. They are stubborn little suckers.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, we’re all lice and nit free. I must admit that as I write this blog, my hair is feeling a little itchy but I’m sure that’s just psychosomatic.



My French stutter

November 1, 2014

DaccordA highlight of Jessica’s birth was that I did it all in French. This called for major fireworks and punching the air. At one point during my hospital stay, a doctor asked if, as he was speaking, I could translate into English for Alastair. I felt as if I finally had something to show for the time and money I have invested in learning the language. It was as if I passed a big personal test. And translating felt particularly useful and important, like I worked for the UN.

Just when I think I’ve got it, I realise I don’t. Learning a language is like catching an eel with your hands. You chase it and catch it and think, ‘Got it!’ and then it slides out your fingers and the cycle of chasing, catching and sliding starts again and then again.   It’s all highs and lows, up and downs.

Now I’m in a down phase because every sentence feels a creaking struggle. I have lost the connection between my brain and my tongue. An Italian lady used to give me French lessons and I remember she said she was fluent but struggled when tired. I’m screwed for the foreseeable future because these days I am always knackered. It requires a lot of mental energy to speak a foreign language and with a new baby, sleepless nights and keeping pace with Megan, I don’t have spare capacity and my brain is rattling around in my head like an orange in a shoebox.

People wonder whether it matters if I say ‘Sorry we is late’ or ‘Alastair is travelling for work. She’ll be back tomorrow.’ It matters to me. When you’ve experienced the euphoria of speaking well, you want that high again. It is like a drug.

imagesILD6OJH9Sometimes I feel myself making stupid mistakes as I speak. Other times I think I am talking like a local and it is only later, as I pat myself on the back and replay the conversation, that I realise how I duffed up. Like the time when we had the musketeers in the house. One morning Megan woke up with little red dots on her face and I explained to her teacher, ‘Megan is not sick. I found five musketeers in her room. They bit her during the night’. In my defence, mosquitoes, mosquito nets and musketeers are so similar (moustiques, moustiquaires and mousketaires).

When talking to someone in French, it never occurs to me that the person mumbles, has an accent or speaks softly. I forget that in English I often say pardon or excuse me or SPEAK UP PLEASE. If I don’t understand the person first time round, I assume the problem is me so I infer meaning and imagine what I think they said. So when Megan’s teacher asked me how my pregnancy was going, I replied ‘thank-you’ because I didn’t hear/understand properly but reckoned she said I was coping well.

images1IM3ASXCI met a mother at Megan’s school. She told me her name at high speed and I didn’t want to say ‘pardon’ because I was pretending to be super-cool and fluent. She invited me round for tea, then we met at the park and another day we went for a walk with our kids. After all this interaction, it became more and more awkward to say, ‘By the way, what’s your name?’ It got so embarrassing that I started avoiding her until one day she sent me a text and signed her name.

I think the reason I am so despondent and negative is because after the hospital experience, I thought I reached the level where I could have a local, French-speaking BFF (Best Friend Forever) and I hate to admit I am not yet good enough. I speak great administrative French. I can discuss an order, query an invoice or talk to a doctor – predictable, linear things like that. Social conversations are faster paced and the topics are vast and unpredictable and I can’t cope with that spontaneity and speed.

imagesEBHHB6G8I’m also more insecure in a social context because I want people to enjoy my company. I can’t convey the real me. In the French world, I am dull and stiff and I desperately want to say, ‘Just so you know, I am a lot more three-dimensional and colourful than I appear’.

Now that I think about it, I speak the best French when I am angry or fighting for my rights or when I don’t care what I say as long as I get my point across. When I consciously try to speak well, I stutter. My social French would flow better if I turn off that self-aware and neurotic part of my brain and let the more playful, confident Julie operate the controls.

UntitledThis is my plan of action for the next few months. I will take social French down a notch and instead of becoming big mates with locals, I will become big mates with French-speaking foreigners. There is a Spanish lady down the road who can’t speak a word of English so we talk in French. Her French is worse than mine so I find our conversations build my confidence. I must watch my accent because my old boss said his American mother learned French by practicing with their Portuguese housekeeper. After over 30 years in Switzerland, he said his mum still speaks French with a Portuguese accent.

My next plan is to join a local church. I’ve visited three so far. My social interactions there were reasonably successful because I prepped an introductory speech along the lines of ‘My name is Julie. I am South African and I speak English. I want to improve my French and integrate into the community so I am looking for a French church.’

215px-Rain_Man_posterI robotically launched into this spiel every time someone approached me. I know I came across a little autistic, like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, especially when a random stranger, who was probably also new, asked me where the toilets were and I said, ‘My name is Julie. I am South African …’

Nevertheless I am grateful for my speech because at one church they asked visitors to raise their hands.  Then, to my horror, they wanted me to introduce myself.  Yes, can you believe it – speak French in front of EVERYONE.  Alastair said I went so red that he thought blood would start haemorrhaging out my cheeks. When the 150-strong congregation turned to me, I looked for the nearest exit but then I remembered my fall back position so I said, ‘My name is Julie. I am South African and I speak English …’